The Role of the Unreliable Narrator in Shaping Point of View in Sedaris’ “Season’s Greetings to Our Family and Friends”
By Brad Windhauser
The narrator in any story provides the reader with a vantage point from which he or she learns of the story’s details. All ideas expressed are therefore filtered through this narrator’s sensibilities—we understand the narrator’s definition of someone being happy, sad, running quickly, slowly; whether a character is intelligent or simple minded.
And because we tend to think the best about people, we naturally assume the narrator is telling the truth to the best of his or her ability.
Unreliable narrators, in contrast, intentionally or unintentionally provide misinformation. Their biased details sway the audience, usually away from “the truth.” Excellent examples: the narrator in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” or the autistic boy in Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
In these stories, carefully provided clues announce that something is “off”; then the reader shifts his or her mindset, interpreting content to discern the “truth” of a story (in Gilman’s story, for example, we come to understand that she has torn apart the room, not the previous occupants, whom the narrator accuses).
Several stories conceal the unreliable narrator so well that you have to re-read it several times to find the carefully concealed clues. In all cases, the use of this type of narrator contributes to the author’s purpose. In David Sedaris’ “Season’s Greetings to Our Family and Friends,” the unreliable narrator deepens the author’s commentary of the female narrator.
At first, this story appears to be a (really) dark comedy about a woman trying to hold her family together after her husband’s illegitimate daughter from Vietnam (Khe Sahn) appears on their door step and her own drug-using daughter gives birth to a difficult, crack-addicted son. The tragedy that caps the story appears to be a racist dig at Khe Sahn that also “solves” the dilemma of the grandchild. Told from the mother’s point of view, the story is designed to establish her as a good-natured victim in an impossible situation who has been unfairly accused of murder of the grandchild.
When I first read this story, I thought the dark humor was sending up this sad family and actually making light of this tragedy, as if a foreigner’s lack of command of English contributed to her making a tragic mistake. But on closer read, the presence of the unreliable narrator becomes clear, and thereby reveals crafty use of this narrator’s point of view to skew the details of the events to make herself look good. This is important, because she’s been charged with a crime, for which she will need her friends and family to testify on her behalf. This concealed purpose—revealed near the very end—clearly explains her motivation for skewing the story’s details.
The narrator uses the intro to establish sympathy for herself.
The story opens with the narrator addressing the intended audience directly: “Our friends and family.” This first paragraph mentions the Dunbar’s recent “tragedy” and their “legal woes and ‘hassles’.” This sets the tone of a down-trodden family looking for support. Then arrives the first of many prodigious uses of the exclamation point, which immediately calls attention to dramatics.
Although this introduces the judgment of this type of character—she’s looking for attention—it does not announce an unreliable narrator. She proceeds to play up her victim status as she discusses the details of her “big news”—she makes it seem like she’s a saint for having written to her enlisted husband “every single day” while he was in Vietnam, while he replied with only four letters. She also plays up her “struggle” to raise their children. Her struggles continue when the 22-year-old Khe Sahn arrives on Halloween, whom she mistakes for a trick-or-treater and attempts to close the door on her.
Through these details she invites her intended audience’s sympathy: what would YOU do in the same situation? her tone invites.
The narrator then builds on this intended sympathy by discussing her children.
Soon, Khe Sahn takes up residence in the home—amidst the narrator’s not-so-subtle protestations. Then she discusses her other children, introducing another crucial plot thread: the one she adores (Kevin), the one for whom she feels sorry (Jacklyn).
She plays up Kevin’s accomplishments (excelling as a chemical engineering major in college) by contrasting them with Khe Sahn’s apparent refusal to assimilate into American culture. By selectively including phrases Khe Sahn uses (“Daddy,” “shiny,” and “five dollar now”), the narrator paints an offensive picture of Khe Sahn while attempting to illustrate her own distress over having these be the only words she hears from a member of her household.
Her selective use of details paints her as an unfortunate matriarch trying to hold her family together in the face of unusual circumstances. Her choice of details also suggests that she believes her audience will sympathize with her. This explains the racist influence in her tone and descriptions.
And then we get to Jacklyn, who has experienced “the hazards of drugs, the calamity of a thoughtless, premature marriage, and the heartaches of parenthood.” This list presents a truly unfortunate set of trouble. The ordering of this list, however, is the most telling. By ending on “heartaches of parenthood,” the narrator privileges this among the list. We soon learn that this speaks to the birth of a crack-addicted son; yet it really speaks to the narrator’s OWN sense of parental heartache. Again, she plays this up for her audience, who are also likely parents.
The details regarding her grandchild are more extreme: “prone to rashes” and a constant screamer. She even asserts that he will grow to be an adult “with the attention span of a common housefly.” She professes her deep love still, however. Again, she’s a saint.
These details bias the audience towards her point of view. She needs this good-will foundation for the major incident of the story: looking to go Christmas shopping, she asks Khe Sahn to “watch” her grandchild, which Khe Sahn supposedly interprets as “wash” the baby—as in put the child in the washing machine followed by the dryer.
A closer read of this story reveals not a twisted dark comedy; rather, this story is really about a manipulative woman who orchestrated the murder of her grandchild and framed Khe Sahn.
Prior to leaving the house, she instructed Khe Sahn—four times—to “watch the baby.” This seems innocent enough—watch sounds just like wash to a foreigner, especially one who apparently has such a limited vocabulary, right? But she’s playing on her impression of her audience’s racism. The more important detail is that the instructions are delivered all in caps, which suggests that she yelled them, loud enough for the neighbors to hear—who would hopefully corroborate her story later.
She then plays up her story about how much effort she put into shopping for her family and suggests that she can’t remember every moment of the time she spent. She also curiously returns home and calls the police BEFORE calling for Khe Sahn or checking the baby, which she finds (while accompanied by the police) dead in the dryer.
When the accusations against her surface, she attempts to discredit the story of a neighbor who claims she saw the narrator sneak back into the house after leaving. Which means that she would have been able to have committed the crime as opposed to being unable because she had left to go shopping.
Were this story told from an unsympathetic point of view—perhaps the neighbor or even Khe Sahn, we would likely see a harsh picture of this narrator; however, told from her point of view, we get inside her head, privying us to her warped thoughts. These delusions add to our understanding of her actions, thereby illustrating a more complete picture of just how horrible a person she is. This effect would not have been as strong were we not aligned with her. And since few people would willingly present themselves as negative as she is, the unreliable narrator tool is necessary to execute the author’s portrait of this type of person.
The effect of the story convinces the reader that they should take a closer look at the content of the holiday newsletters they sometimes receive. What’s on the surface is not actually the truth—or at least not the whole truth.